Eating with our hands in Manado

Benjamin Franklin writes that three days is the most one should stay as a guest at someone’s house. Any longer and a guest will start to stink like rotting fish. More and more, this feels true. Visits that are short and sweet tend to leave fonder memories. Our stay with family in Manado felt a bit short, which is good.

We were in Manado for four days and three nights with family. It’s the slowly growing city at the northern tip of Sulawesi island, the hometown of my mother-in-law. We stayed at the Hotel Aston situated a few blocks from the shore. A generous uncle housed us in a suite with a view of Bunaken island across the water. Our cousin, a cheerful and worldly woman, showed us around town and filled us in on Manadonese culture. Another cousin, a good-natured and humorous man, set up a diving excursion for us on the coral reefs of Bunaken. He also provided us with amazing roast suckling pig at his restaurant.

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The first afternoon we spent at a fish restaurant. We arrived there directly from the airport. The place consisted of a gathering of straw roofed gazebos. It’s hard to find such restaurants in the U.S., devoid of the sounds of electrically run kitchens, phones, and utilities humming in the background. The seating areas, kitchen, and washing sinks were connected by paved paths amidst green patches of grass. Coconut and sugar palms rooted in and around the restaurant stretched into the gray sky. The air was quiet and heavy, and spoke of the impending afternoon rain.

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The kitchen stood alone under a separate straw roof. A coal grill made up most of the space there, as the menu consisted of tilapia and tuna, which were served either grilled or deep fried. A cook tended the grill while another prepared the fresh dips and sauces to go with the food.

We had coconut water out of a coconut, as is the custom here, hacked into a cup by a small machete. The juice was a bit acidic and not as sweet as that of the Thai or Phillippine fruit. It had it’s own refreshing quality without the excessive sugar.

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A waiter brought our orders on a great platter all at once. There were about ten of us together, so this was quite a feat of balance and strength. The tray was nearly as wide as the length of the waiter’s arms, and the man held it high near his head on one hand. He somehow managed to walk the path from the kitchen to where we sat, place the tray down on the table beside us, and serve each plate before all the guests.

We were very happy to have our dinner started. The tilapia was crispy, juicy, and spicy. I couldn’t help but sweat, pant, and blow snot as I burrowed into my dish. Even the eyes were tasty. The tilapia here is a delightfully fatty fish. When cooked hot and fast, it becomes very moist and tender. I started to eat with the fork and spoon, then dropped these in favor of my fingers. It’s the Manadonese way. There is something about holding, tearing, touching food as I eat it that connects me to it much deeper than by using metal utensils. It was intensely pleasurable to feel the grilled skin of the fish as I pulled it apart. It crackled and gave way to the juicy flesh underneath. Rice, too, is tastier when gathered together and brought to the mouth with fingers.

At first thought, eating with hands may seem savage or uncivilized. Whether that is true can be left up to discussion for those who believe they are civilized. Eating with hands forms a deeper appreciation for food. The texture and temperature of what we eat is magnified by using the fingers to pick it up. Our fingers are an addition to our eyes, nose, lips, tongue, and mouth in sensing our food. The experience of eating is made richer by touching food directly. Although I’ve tried this before, in the recent past and also as a child, in Manado I felt more comfortable doing so.

On a boat ride to the coral reefs, we had curried rice out of waxed paper packets for lunch. This too we ate with our hands. Standing on deck of the small boat, on the black blue waters before the great Bunaken island, and basking in the warm Indonesian sun, there was no better place to enjoy a meal with hands. I will write more about the diving later.

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Aside from dining on glorious foods, our time in Manado was divided amongst visiting old family friends, paying respect to ancestors at cemeteries, seeing the incredible physique of the land and water, and walking through the town streets.

I can’t do justice to all of it now. More on this later.

Live powerfully,

Steve

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